If we want to save local journalism, we need to know what’s actually killing it.
A bit of a rant.
I wasn’t going to say anything about the absurd, unnecessary shots this New York Times story took at Craig Newmark in reporting his welcome and generous $20 million donation to CUNY’s journalism school. But after reading all this journalist-driven outrage on the subject, enough’s enough.
Fellow journalists: Do you really truly believe that, if not for Craigslist, little kids would be riding around your neighborhood today tossing thick newspapers onto your lawn laden with classified ads? If so, we need to talk.
Journalists are storytellers by nature. And a good story needs a protagonist and antagonist. Broad trends make lousy antagonists, so we like to find someone who, in our view, humanizes the trend. For the better part of the last 20-ish years, Craig Newmark has been one of those people — and quite unfairly in my book.
Look, I get it. Finding a person to point a finger at can be emotionally satisfying. And it’s a better story, if not necessarily a more accurate one.
So who killed classifieds? Spoiler: It wasn’t Craig Newmark.
Print classifieds were a product of a different time — a time when reaching a local audience was difficult and extremely expensive.
At that time, local papers owned something like a geographic monopoly. They were basically the only game in town, and they could charge a premium as a result.
Pound for pound, classifieds were among the most valuable form of advertising per column inch in any newspaper. If you needed to find an apartment, hire someone or sell a couch, you went to your local paper and placed a classified.
I’m old enough to remember *calling* — yes, kids… calling… like on the phone — the local paper and dictating my classified ad. The person on the other end of the phone would input the ad, which would then go through a long and labor-intensive production process and end up (most of the time) in the paper. Oh, and yes. You want a bold font to make your ad stand out? That’ll be extra.
Can you not see how ripe for disruption the classifieds business was? Do you really think that if Craigslist didn’t exist newspaper classifieds would just have kept humming along through today? The answer is no.
So what killed classifieds? The internet did.
Or, more accurately, the impact of a communication platform on which the cost to distribute to a mass audience is effectively zero. Suddenly, it was easy and cheap to reach a local audience, and that’s what killed classifieds. Craigslist, in other words, was inevitable — whether it was Craig Newmark or someone else who launched it.
For a long time I wondered why newspaper executives simply sat there and watched as Craigslist ate into their bottom line, much in the way Google and Facebook are today on the advertising side. I used to wonder why they didn’t see the obvious danger a product like Craigslist posed.
Having spent a bit of time on the business side of two publications, I’ve changed my view. Newspaper executives absolutely saw the threat. They just didn’t (or couldn’t) do anything about it for the same reason that any incumbent industry seemingly sits there waiting to be disrupted: The profit margins of the old thing were just too good.
Until they weren’t.
And by then it’s too late.
If we are going to save the news business, we have to understand what’s killing it. Finger pointing and playing the blame game move us no closer to that answer.
This series by the brilliant Ben Thompson is a great place to start, by the way. Some of the examples are a bit dated, but the themes hold true today.
Even if you aren’t convinced by any of this, can we at least agree that it is ridiculous to re-litigate the Who Killed Classifieds case today, literally two decades after the supposed crime? Isn’t it time to move on?
Because right now, we need all the friends we can get, and Craig is a friend. Over the years through his philanthropy, he has done more than most (certainly more than a few billionaires I can think of) to help ensure that quality news survives.
Instead of wagging a finger we should extend a hand in gratitude. So from this journalist anyway… Thank you, Craig.